(by Dustin Putman
If the lovely recent Pixar prequel "Monsters University" sent out the wise, teachable message that one can be happy with the talents life has given them—even when they don't always match up exactly with said person's original aspirations and dreams—then Dreamworks' latest computer-animated entry "Turbo" goes the wayward opposite route. A well-intentioned but sorely misguided fable about a snail who wishes he could race alongside the professional IndyCar drivers he sees on television, first-time writer-director David Soren and co-scribes Darren Lemke (2010's "Shrek Forever After") and Robert Siegel (2008's "The Wrestler") have fashioned a lighthearted comedy with a seedy, dishonest undercurrent akin to a parent lying to their child and intentionally letting them win at a game. Instead of making him or her wait until he or she has brushed up on the necessary skills and strategy to genuinely earn defeat, the grown-up perpetuates the youngster's delusions, terrified by what might happen if their kid was to learn what failure is. Article continues below
And so it goes with big-hearted garden snail Theo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), who wants something bigger and better—and faster—out of life than his species' daily routine of harvesting tomatoes. Brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) speaks for just about everyone when he tells him snails aren't meant to race; they are naturally slow creatures who slink slimily along at their own unhurried pace. One night as Theo looks out from atop a bustling highway overpass, he takes a fall and gets sucked into a street racer's engine. Doused in nitrous oxide, Theo is suddenly transformed into a snail who is, at last, special-powered to leave his fellow snail community in the dust. Nicknamed Turbo, his lightning-speed abilities catch the attention of a quartet of strip mall employees—taco hut worker Tito (Michael Peña), nail salon lady Kim-Ly (Ken Jeong), autobody mechanic Paz (Michelle Rodriguez), and hobby shop owner Bobby (Richard Jenkins)—who agree to sponsor him in the Indianapolis 500 as a means of hopefully promoting their ailing businesses.
"Turbo" begins as an underdog's tale, and this first act is where the film gets most of its plucky charm. Theo is the classic hero, out to overcome insurmountable odds and prove his naysayers wrong. Once he becomes Turbo, however, the heartfelt earlier pleasures are shoved over to make way for louder, more hectic, not half as zany as it hopes sensibilities. Reminiscent of the opening of 2006's "Cars" if Lightning McQueen were to have remained at the glitzy raceway and never been sidelined in Radiator Springs to learn a valuable lesson about life in the fast lane, "Turbo" additionally loses its way in a cog of mixed messages. The use of nitrous oxide is a major no-no in the world of IndyCar racing, and yet no one seems to bat an eye that the only reason Turbo is quick enough to be able to compete is because the shell on his back is full of the illegal chemical. Suddenly faced with a world of yesses everywhere he goes, no one bothers to inform Turbo that he's cheating his way to victory—and that's no way at all to fulfill a dream.
Ryan Reynolds (2011's "The Change-Up") has been accused in the past of being typecast as a smart aleck, but in voicing Theo the actor gets to the sincere heart and hopeful drive of his molluskan character. Though he doesn't compete fairly in the Indianapolis 500, it isn't entirely his fault since he's surrounded by shameless enablers. In short, he doesn't know any better. The rest of the cast do their jobs sufficiently, but this is a slim script without much depth. Of them, Bill Hader (2011's "Paul") disappears into his part of French racing legend Guy Gagné; Samuel L. Jackson (2012's "Django Unchained") is ideal as the cool-in-black snail Whiplash, and Michael Peña (2012's "End of Watch") gets to portray Tito as a positive example of a Mexican-American character after "Despicable Me 2" stereotyped a similar figure as the villain. As for Ken Jeong's (2013's "The Hangover Part III") participation playing female nail salon worker Kim-Ly, the jury's still out on whether it's offensive or so crazy that it works.
"Turbo" isn't above a spot of gallows humor now and again—the snail community is resolved to the fact that at any minute, one of them can be swiped and killed by a passing bird of prey, which happens regularly—and there is a cute spoof of a viral Internet video called "That Snail's Fast!" as Theo hits the big time. Where the film is a major letdown is in the studio's and director David Soren's conception of the project. At no time did anyone stop to think that the message their movie is sending out is ill-advised at best and harmfully hypocritical at worst? Do kids really need to see a film where the protagonist triumphs by breaking the rules? Is it right to go through life believing you are something you're not because no one has the heart to break the truth to you? This is how laughing-stock contestants at "American Idol" auditions are made, and the same goes for poor Theo. He may be happily oblivious to the fact that he himself is not a gifted racing snail, but in his mask of false pretense he could potentially be missing out on something he truly is good at.